Unrest in Central Asia 'Kyrgyzstan Is On the Brink of Collapse'

With hundreds dead and tens of thousands of refugees, ethnic violence has brought chaos to Kyrgyzstan. Central Asia policy expert Andrea Schmitz told SPIEGEL ONLINE about the history behind the attacks on the Uzbek minority and the wobbly transitional government.


SPIEGEL ONLINE: The news from Kyrgyzstan is deeply disturbing. Officially, 170 people have been killed during the angry unrest over the last week and other sources put the death toll above 700. What is the current situation?

Schmitz: Official figures probably understate the number of dead, which is likely to be considerably higher. I do not have the exact numbers. The situation at present is so chaotic no one can reliably count the dead.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Reports say almost all the dead belong to the Uzbek minority.

Schmitz: That appears to be correct. However, it's also said that those behind the unrest have tried to turn Kyrgyz and Uzbeks against each other. But the violence has clearly focused on the Uzbek minority.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some speculate that the ex-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was toppled in April, is behind the unrest. Do you consider this plausible?

Schmitz: I do not think that Bakiyev, from the distance of his exile in Minsk, is in a position to pull the strings. But I am firmly of the belief that parts of his network and his followers -- possibly in conjunction with protagonists from organized-crime circles -- may have instigated the violence. It has become clear that supporters of the former president are not prepared to let anyone take either power or resources. In addition, there is some evidence that revenge has played a role. Some of the Uzbek "strong men" said to have drug trafficking connections have made the mistake of positioning themselves in the power struggle, supporting the interim government and standing against the followers of Bakiyev. I expect that Bakiyev supporters have not forgiven them for that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In addition to vengeance, is the unrest also about undermining or even overthrowing the transitional government of Roza Otunbayeva?

Schmitz: Absolutely. This was clearly about creating chaos and preventing the referendum on a new constitution, planned for late June. The problem of the transitional government is that it has no legitimacy and is hardly in a position to calm the situation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: At the moment the situation seems to have calmed slightly.

Schmitz: But the danger has not yet passed. I assume the perpetrators of the pogroms have retreated to discuss how to proceed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Aid agencies are working on the assumption that hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks have fled. But Uzbekistan has not open its borders. Why?

Schmitz: At first Uzbekistan did open its borders, but after up to 80,000 refugees entered the country, Uzbekistan is apparently unable to accept more. That is not implausible.


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